Howling at Sherlock’s Hilarious ‘Hound’

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Bruce caricatureBruce The Blog Beyond Broadway  

BY BRUCE APAR

When Bruce The Blog Watches… People Act!

The Hound of the Baskervilles
Adapted from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel
By Steven Canny and John Nicholson

Directed by Mark Shanahan

Through May 13, 2017 (weekends)

Whippoorwill Hall Theatre at North Castle Library
Kent Place, Armonk, New York 10504
(914) 271-28811

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In the gut-busting production of The Hound of the Baskervilles now doubling over audiences at Hudson Stage in Armonk, there are some 20 characters on stage–but only three actors.

How does that work? Like clockwork! More precisely, like a crazy, cuckoo clock with sleight of hands that move at lightning speed–forward, backward and wayward. 

Review continues below photo…

 

 

Baskervilles trio

FUNNY GUYS (From left) Denis Lambert as Sherlock Holmes, Joe Delafield at Sir Charles Baskerville, Matt Ban as Dr. Watson. The trio of actors play some 20 characters in all.                               All photos by Rana Faure

This raucous confection not only makes bloody good fun of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic sleuth and his sidekick Dr. Watson. The farcical play makes fun of its own clever contrivances. It even mocks its actors, who occasionally step out of character as themselves. Oh, don’t feel sorry for them. Not for one minute. In fact, it’s difficult at times to discern who is having more fun: The people on stage or the people in the audience. No matter. Fun it is, from beginning to end, and back again.

HEY, LET’S RE-RUN ACT I… IN HIGH SPEED

As Act II begins, the actor who plays Sherlock Holmes and a host of other characters (quick-change whirling dervish Denis Lambert) insists to his incredulous castmates that they re-run the first Act… in high-speed. Why? Because, complains the indignant Lambert, a supposed member of the audience during intermission tweeted that the actor slowed down the hijinks with his sluggish performance. To redeem himself, Lambert exhorts his sidekicks to race headlong through the highlights of Act I. And they oblige him. (It reminded me of the show-stopping musical number in Broadway hit “The Producers” that recaps the entire plot to that point. The music here is the melodic notes of laughter.)

Denis Lambert’s partners in crime-solving are Joe Delafield (Sir Charles Baskerville and others) and Matt Ban (Dr. Watson and others). They form a tight, nimble comedy troupe that performs with vaudevillian brio, donning and doffing headwear and outerwear, plus smoothly transporting props on and off stage to create the illusion of a much fuller cast of characters and settings. The fancy feet work they do is no easy feat, , and their collective efforts are to be vigorously applauded and admired, especially by other actors who amply can appreciate the challenging tasks at hand. The transformative costumes that constantly morph are a real stitch, the seamless handiwork of Jeni Schaefer and Charlotte Palmer-Lane.

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                                        SHERLOCK, YOU JEST! These guys get around, don’t they?                                             All photos by Rana Faure

KNOCK, KNOCK! WHO’S THERE?

“What can you deduce about that knocking?” asks Holmes of Watson, who replies, with unerring instinct, “It’s coming from the door.” That’s just a very light taste of the silly yet puckishly authentic repartee and gags that trigger guffaws aplenty.

If all this sounds veddy Monty Pythonesque, there’s good reason. The co-writers of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” – Steven Canny and John Nicholson, billed as “adaptors” to pay due homage to their muse, Sir Arthur – have extensive credentials as comedy writers for England’s BBC TV network. Whether it’s Monty Python or Benny Hill, the Brits love their comedy dry, punny and slapsticky, and they love their literature immortal, from Shakespeare to Sherlock to, well, Harry (Potter, not Prince).

Throughout the fast-paced romp of the Baskervilles, the suspenseful storyline somehow stays intact, providing a sturdy, timeless framework for tongue-in-cheeky wordplay, non-stop physical comedy, and whimsical winks at the audience, which winks back by gleefully going along for the joy ride.

The case they must crack is simply stated: Members of the wealthy Baskerville clan are being hounded to death by a rabid Rover. Holmes and Watson wend their way through the moors and the mire and some slippery sorts to solve the mystery. And the game’s afoot.

WHAT A HANSOM CAB THAT IS!

Kudos to director Mark Shanahan and choreographer Stephanie Card, who do a masterly job of keeping the action throttling forward at breakneck speed. That includes putting the actors through some bouncy paces as they ride in a horse-drawn, hansom cab and on a train. 

As is standard operating procedure for Hudson Stage and its producing team of Denise Bessette, Olivia Sklar and Dan Foster, the production is expertly staged, with tender loving care assigned to every aspect of stagecraft.

The sensual sound design, by Sean Hagerty, credibly creates a sense of place, whether it’s a howling hound or an ominous wind or a creaking door or mooing cows. The visual effects are fun to take in as well. For example, with the right balance of imagination and artistry, a household object placed on stage by the actor – such as a pail billowing steam — can adequately signify a sauna.

 

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WHO’S FRAMING WHOM? (From left) Matt Ban, Denis Lambert, Joe Delafield as… oh, who can keep track of them all. All photos by Rana Faure

THROWBACK THEATER

Before the play began, a smile came over my face at the sight of the elaborate set, another hallmark of Hudson Stage’s consistently tony style of theater. This time it is a gorgeously rendered recreation of an early 20th Century proscenium arch theater with carved wood columns and burgundy red curtains flanking the stage (scenery by David Arsenault.)

To someone who’s never been inside North Castle Library’s Whippoorwill Theatre – an eminently audience-friendly and actor-friendly performing space — odds are they’d be none the wiser thinking the current décor is the permanent stage. It’s that convincing. I thought to myself, “This is throwback theater!” Go to the Whippoorwill in Armonk, throw yourself back in the comfy seats, prepare to act like a hound, and howl.


Bruce Apar is Chief Content Officer of Pinpoint Marketing & Design, a Google Partner Agency. Its Adventix division helps performing arts venues, including The Schoolhouse Theater, increase ticket sales. He also is an actor, a community volunteer, and a contributor to several periodicals, including Westchester Magazine. Follow him as Bruce The Blog on social media. Reach him at bapar@pinpointmarketingdesign.com or (914) 275-6887.


A Memorable Play on Memory

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Bruce caricatureBruce the Blog Reviews Theater
BY BRUCE APAR
When Bruce The Blog Watches… People Act

 

You Will Remember Me (American Premiere)
by Francois Archambault
Directed by Dan Foster
Executive Produced by Denise Bessette & Olivia Sklar
Through Oct. 29
Whippoorwill Hall (at North Castle Library)
19 Whippoorwill East, Armonk, N.Y. 10504
Hudson Stage Company
HudsonStage.com
(914) 271-2811

As I sat watching “You Will Remember Me,” I found myself nodding. Not nodding off as in falling asleep. Not even close. I was nodding in recognition and agreement with many of the viewpoints being channeled through the characters on stage.

Montreal playwright Francois Archambault has a lot on his mind. He’s interested in ideas. Alas, “people aren’t interested in ideas, they only want to feel,” bemoans his lead character Edouard Beauchamin. The retired professor of history is short on memory but not on grievances about the declining state of culture.  

Cast-You Will Remember Me

Cast and creative team of You Will Remember Me: (from left) Susannah Schulman Rogers (Isabelle), playwright Francois Archambault, John Hutton (Edouard), director Dan Foster, Ella Dershowitz (Berenice), Susan Pellegrino (Madeleine), producer Denise Bessette, Chris Kipniak (Patrick), choreographer Tony Yazbeck, producer Olivia Sklar, script translator Bobby Theodore. Photo by Bruce Apar

 

The author calls ours “an era of extreme intellectual mediocrity,” in part because “being angry and name-calling isn’t thinking — it isn’t even particularly serious behavior.” As we’re all too familiar from fact-free, emotionally-charged social media posts — especially about politics — “you don’t even have to know what you’re talking about.”

He coins a lot of choice lines along those lines. I could fill almost this entire space with the slings and arrows he aims — with unerring accuracy — at our collective foibles.

EDOUARD IS BOUNCED AROUND LIKE A RUGBY BALL IN A SCRUM

All those sentiments are expressed by Edouard, whose frustrating struggles with progressive memory loss, while still in his sixties, are ironic and made more tragic because he is such a conscientious thinker.  He could pinpoint a litany of historical dates and events but, as the cliche goes, don’t ask him what he ate for breakfast.

He also keeps forgetting the identity of the young lady (Ella Dershowitz) in her 20s watching over him, even though her dad Patrick (Chris Kipniak) is dating Edouard’s daughter Isabelle (Susannah Schulman Rogers). Save for Ms. Dershowitz, all the actors are members of Actors Equity.

The twentysomething’s name is Berenice, which connects her in Edouard’s addled mind to a long lost family member whose middle name is the same. As Edouard’s condition worsens, and becomes unbearable for his wife and daughter to handle, he is bounced around repeatedly, and not very gently, much like a rugby ball in a scrum.

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Edouard (John Hutton) isn’t certain about who Berenice (Ella Dershowitz) is, but he is certain about who he wants her to be. Photo by Rana Faure

REMARKABLY CONVINCING AND TOUCHING PORTRAIT OF DEMENTIA 

Patrick’s distracted daughter warms to the task of an attentive nursemaid, accepting the guise he assigns to her of his absent loved one.

Francois Archambault told me at the play’s opening night that he was inspired to write about the subject of dementia by someone close to him who has Alzheimer’s. The person would ask Mr. Archambault what he was working on, and “five minutes later, he would start talking about the same thing. I started making up the answer.” That scenario is mirrored in the play.  

However, other than what the he observed about this person’s behavior, he relied on his own writer’s instincts to conjure the story and its dialogue. “I tried to imagine how it is to struggle with that,” he said. 

Based on what we witness on stage, he did a praiseworthy job of it.

Mr. Hutton is remarkably convincing and touching in the challenging role of a proud intellectual whose joy for life and for big ideas is not about to be dimmed by the ravages of a devastating disease. The cast members who orbit around his star turn form a solid ensemble of alternating emotional connection and mistrust.

A bonus of sorts is an unexpected brief but delightful dance interlude that is used to lyrically illuminate the various relationships. It is choreographed by Broadway’s multi-talented Tony Yazbeck, who was a Tony Award nominee for “On the Town” and was in “Finding Neverland.” There is judicious use in other scenes as well of arresting sound (William Neal) and visual imagery.

Andrew Gmoser’s masterly lighting schemes always deserve mention. Guided by cerebral director and stage magician Dan Foster — who is co-producer of Hudson Stage with Denise Bessette and Olivia Sklar — it all adds up to an engaging, compelling theater experience.

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Edouard’s wife Madeleine (Susan Pellegrino, left) informs daughter Isabelle (Susannah Schulman Rogers) of her plans. Photo by Rana Faure

HUMANS ARE LIKE PLANT SPECIES THAT INVADE ALIEN TERRITORIES

I found Edouard an inspiring character from whom I could learn new things. He likens humans to plant species in how both exhibit a natural inclination toward expanding their territories.

His curiosity about ecology lends itself to the elegant stage design, which is a proud signature of every production at Hudson Stage. Here, Steven Kemp earns applause for his striking ingenuity. The monochromatic motif fills the proscenium space with white cylindrical shapes that emulate stalagmites and stalactites, to connote trees in a forest. There also are outbursts of silver flora to represent common phragmites. Even if you’re unsure how to pronounce it (frag-mighties), you’ve surely seen it around northern Westchester. 

Phragmites are tall and slender amber reeds that populate fields or roadsides and sway lazily in the gentlest breeze. Their notoriety for crowding out other plant life reminds Edouard of mass culture killing off high-minded culture, or of superpowers like the U.S. and China bulldozing whatever obstructs their path to world domination.

For me, the strands of the phragmites stood as apt analogs for the frayed synapses tormenting both Edouard and those in his thrall.

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John Hutton as Edouard (l) repeatedly asks Patrick (Chris Kipniak) what he does for a living.                   Photo by Rana Faure

 WE LET NOISE DROWN NUANCE

Edouard’s onsetting dementia, in my mind anyhow, is a metaphor for a self-induced dementia in society at large, as we give ourselves over to simulated reality and ersatz emotions rooted not in passion but in pretense. We bicker over weighty matters we don’t even take the time or energy to fully understand. We talk before we think. We let noise drown nuance. We let superficial party labels dictate who we are and what we think. We don’t work hard enough to distinguish ourselves through rigorous introspection and the humility of self-doubt. We let ourselves down through sheer laziness.

There’s an existential overlay to the goings-on in “You Will Remember Me,” articulated in Edouard’s dismissive declaration that “You are all prisoners of an endless present moment.” On its face, that observation is an indictment of how we mock the substance of ourselves through social media, which glibly devolves character into caricature and ideas into idiocies. What Edouard says doubles as a depressing description of Alzheimer’s patients, who steadily lose their grasp on the continuum of personal content and context.

As we watched the play, my wife Elyse and I happened to be sitting next to a woman from the Hudson Valley Alzheimer’s Association, Jonelle Ward, director of outreach. Afterwards, she explained to us the distinction between the terms dementia and Alzheimer’s. The former is a general term that encompasses many different conditions, of which Alzheimer’s is the most notorious and prevalent. In some cases, said Ms. Ward, other forms of dementia are reversible.

ADVANCED CARE PLANNING

The Alzheimer’s Association hosts free informational sessions in cooperation with Westchester Jewish Community Services (WJCS). The next is Tuesday, Nov. 15 from 7:30-9 p.m. at Temple Shaaray Tefila in Bedford Corners. It will offer “advice on how to handle tough topics when a loved one has dementia.” For more information, visit Alz.org or call 800-272-3900.

Another free opportunity is offered on Saturday, Oct. 29, at the offices of elder law attorney Salvatore A. Di Costanzo in Yorktown Heights. He is hosting an informal “Fireside Chat” for adult children who want to learn more about such topics as estate planning. Additional free Fireside Chats are scheduled for Nov. 29 and Dec. 29. For more information, contact Melanie Harrison at mharrison@mfd-law.com or (914) 245-2440.                      

ADDITIONAL PRODUCTION CREDITS

Translated by Bobby Theodore
Costumes by Charlotte Palmer-Lane
Stage Managed by Katie Kavett (Actors Equity)
Casting by McCorkle Casting Ltd.


Media and marketing specialist Bruce Apar is Chief Content Officer of Pinpoint Marketing & Design, a Google Partner Agency and Certified Google AdWords Professionals. As “Bruce The Blog,” Apar is a weekly columnist for Halston Media newspapers and PennySaver, and a contributing writer for Westchester Magazine. Follow Pinpoint Marketing & Design on Facebook and LinkedIn, and as @Pinpointments on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Bruce The Blog on social media. Reach him at bapar@pinpointmarketingdesign.com or (914) 275-6887.


Lives as Fragile as Origami

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Bruce caricatureBruce the Blog Reviews Theater
BY BRUCE APAR
When Bruce The Blog Watches… People Act

 

Animals Out of Paper
by Rajiv Joseph
Directed by Stephen Nachamie
Through May 14
Whippoorwill Hall
19 Whippoorwill East, Armonk, N.Y. 10504
Hudson Stage Company
HudsonStage.com

Who would dare to hinge a stage drama on the exotica of origami? (which the dictionary describes as “the Japanese art of folding paper into decorative shapes and figures.”) Only a writer with the confidence, skill and rigor to employ it as a metaphor for the fragility and myriad twists and turns that define every life.

Meet playwright Rajiv Joseph, whose “Animals Out of Paper” holds us in thrall as it unfolds to reveal the inner workings of its three strongly delineated characters. Thanks to first-rate acting and direction, Mr. Joseph’s clever and insightful play is well worth seeing in a splendid production by Hudson Stage Company at North Castle Library’s Whippoorwill Theater in Armonk (HudsonStage.com). It runs through May 14.

As the play begins, we are inside the apartment of origami guru Ilana (Jenny Sheffer Stevens, Actors’ Equity). Brought to life by Broadway-quality set design, it’s a living space that is as much of a mess as the life of its occupant. Ilana’s in divorce mode and her toothless, earless, 12-year-old three-legged dog has run away. Ilana, by her own admission, is not a people person.

Eccentrically engaging Andy (MIchael Guagno) finds that out quickly enough when he comes knocking and Ilana doesn’t bother to disguise her discomfort when this garrulous stranger lumbers clumsily into her reclusive world.

Ilana may be an indifferent host but she’s enough of a renowned origamist that high school calculus teacher Andy beseeches her to tutor one of his students, whose brilliance is blinding.

Michael Guagno-Jenny Stevens-Animals out of Paper

Andy (Michael Guagno) sheds his anxiety to show his feelings for Ilana (Jenny Sheffer Stevens).

THE ‘JIMI HENDRIX OF ORIGAMI’

Like Andy before him, student Suresh (Adit Dileep, Actors’ Equity) barrels his way into Ilana’s apartment, posing with hip-hop swagger, grooving to the music plugged into his ears. He’s a whiz not only at calculus, but, to hear Andy tell it, is also “the Jimi Hendrix of origami.” Flaunting his many-splendored gifts, Suresh milks an opportunity to impress Ilana further by creating freestyle rap lyrics without blinking.

Analogous to Ilana’s escaped canine, this trio resembles a lost, three-legged creature that teeters its way through a progression of naked truths and raw emotions that reveal the vulnerability, confusion and potential for salvation in all of us.

If that sounds oh-so-heavy, leave it to a crafty, cerebral dramatist like Rajiv Joseph to pull it off with the elegance and lightness epitomized by Ilana’s origami, whether it’s an oversize pterodactyl mobile or a heart-shaped mesh that could revolutionize non-invasive cardiac surgery.

Along the way, we witness a clash of attitudes and even cultures (when Ilana comments on how Suresh speaks, he replies, “You think I should sound Indian?”). Each character lives fully within his or her own world, and needs to let others in, but struggles to figure out how.

We also peer in on the various sides of each character, mirroring origami as a geometry of surfaces connected by creases.

Suresh’s outward brio masks his emotional needs and the profound pain he lives with after losing his mother in a fatal hit-and-run accident.

COUNTS HIS BLESSINGS… ALL 8,000 OF THEM

Andy lives in a bubble of blessings, which he literally counts by writing them down in his not-so-secret diary that Ilana ends up reading one night. “When I was 12,” he tells her, “a fortune cookie said ‘Count your blessings,’” and so he does, every day. His obsessive-compulsive tendencies have resulted in almost 8,000 “blessings.”

When Ilana questions how “pain” qualifies as a blessing, as Andy has entered in the diary, he observes, “it’s not pleasant, but it’s real.” That is how Andy, who says he’s never been truly hurt, conditions himself to both feel and to see the bright side of life, even when it’s melancholy. After all, how would we know mirth without knowing melancholy?

Ilana, who hasn’t “folded” since her dog Demba flew the coop, as if in mourning, warms to Andy and to Suresh, almost to her surprise. Sparks start to fly in separate semi-trysts she has with each of the two men, both signs that Ilana finally is returning to the fold. 

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Literal-minded Andy (Michael Guagno) gets down on his knee to suddenly propose to Iliana (Jenny Sheffer Stevens) on — what else — Valentine’s Day.

Early on in the proceedings, Andy philosophizes, “Life is short, opportunities are scarce, love is rare.” Suresh tells her, “Meeting you is a blessing.” By the final curtain, all have grown aware of their respective blessings and ready to move on.

“Listen to your heart,” advises Andy. “It’s a reliable narrative.” I felt the same about the enlightening and thoroughly enjoyable “Animals Out of Paper.”

The three actors create palpable stage chemistry throughout, and are well served by the sure-handed direction of Stephen Nachamie. The pacing is as crisp and wise as the dialogue.

As always with Hudson Stage productions, the technical proficiency is first class. Sound design (William Neal) plays a prominent role in this show and it is coolly dynamic, whether hip-hop or Sinatra on the speakers.  Andrew Gmoser’s lighting is as illuminating as ever, maintaining his status as the gold standard.

Special mention also is due the authentically detailed and impactful set designs by Shoko Kambara, and the smooth, efficient set changes governed by stage manager Genevieve Kersh.

Costumes are by Charlotte Palmer-Lane. Executive producers are Denise Bessette, Dan Foster and Olivia Sklar.

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Adit Dileep (l) as Suresh shows his talent for origami to Jenny Sheffer Stevens as Ilana. All photos by RANA FAURE


 

Media and marketing specialist Bruce Apar, also known as Bruce The Blog, is Chief Content Officer of Pinpoint Marketing & Design, a Google Partner agency.  He also owns APAR All-Media, a Hudson Valley marketing agency that works with The Winery at St. George, Yorktown Feast of San Gennaro, Jefferson Valley Mall, Yorktown Stage, Axial Theatre, Armonk Players and others. He writes a weekly column for several periodicals and hosts public access TV series Hudson Valley WXYZ with Bruce The Blog. Follow him on Hudson Valley WXYZ on Facebook, Twitter & YouTube. Reach him at bapar@pinpointmarketingdesign.com or (914) 275-6887.